I was around pornography a lot when I attended a Catholic all-girls high school in Times Square in the early ‘70s (the school was there first, BTW). We walked to class past movie theaters and peep shows with displays so squalid they ran out of X’s. Because the entire neighborhood was given over to it, porn had a folk art quality then — like it was a traditional craft practiced by the locals. There was Chinatown, Little Italy, and…”Porntown,” where artisanal sleaze merchants labored generation after generation to deliver the very lowest in smut.
Times Square was the water in which we minnows swam. We walked past grindhouse marquees with one preposterously stupid title after another, saving the silliest ones to share with friends at our lockers. We’d talk about first dates and rehash soap operas, and then Anita would say “Did you see that title, Sandwich of Love? No, wait, what about Naughty School Girls?!” and we’d gasp for breath at the absurdities. The contest wouldn’t end until someone came up with something gross, like Backdoor Boogaloo. We’d all say, “EWW,” the bell would ring, and we’d go to first period religion.
So it didn’t seem strange to me to check out how things had changed when I went on a Women Against Pornography tour of the Deuce in the late ‘70s. I didn’t go for the indoctrination or the politics — I went for the laughs.
There weren’t that many. The theaters we had walked past as kids now showed movies with much nastier titles; the sense of play was replaced with a harder, grittier, uglier edge. You could smell the disinfectant every time a door opened somewhere. The tour ended outside a smut emporium with a front window covered by white poster paper. The guide needlessly told us NOT talk to anyone inside. She explained that this was a typical dirty bookstore and under no circumstances should we go into the back room — a completely unnecessary sanction for the mostly middle-class crowd — they weren’t storming any barricades.
It was still sunny outside, but every patron inside wore raincoats…I wondered if there was a dress code, like at the Four Seasons. Did they keep some spare raincoats on hand, in case anyone showed up in a windbreaker?
For a nanosecond, the men viewed us like the dinner bell had rung at the Donner Family Picnic. Maybe they had stumbled into the magic porn shop where everything they read in the stroke books and saw on the videos was true, it was really true!
Nope. Instead of taking off her blouse and waving her bra like they hoped, the tour guide waved a flyer about the First Amendment and handed it to the bored cashier. This exchange must have happened once a week for months; I had a nice mental image of the two of them having a coffee at Dixon’s Cafeteria after the tour was over, but he just gave it a glance.
When she announced that we were there to protest the objectification of women, a couple of guys left. The stalwarts stayed, determined that no bunch of women would interfere with their constitutional right to purchase a copy of Wayward Teen Motorcycle Sluts on Acid.
Inflatable dolls hung from the ceiling — mostly female but a few males — that looked like they were designed by Martians working from a ‘50s comic strip. It gave the shop a weirdly festive atmosphere, like pervert Christmas. At the thought, I moved to avoid standing underneath one.
The tour consisted of us visitors studiously avoiding standing anywhere near the patrons and saying, “Eww” every 10 seconds. The magazines had titles like Nearly Legal, a glossy with a clearly aging woman on the cover, her hair in pigtails. I bumped into an end-of-aisle display, the kind Kmart would use if they decided to go into sex toys. This one featured about 10 dildos in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Although they all had brand names like “the Annihilator,” the way they were arranged, all standing on end in this staging area, looked like they were waiting for a puppet show to begin.
So, I gave them one. I turned them all on, and put them back on the display. They pirouetted around and around in tight little circles with an electric buzz; all they needed was tutus for an X-rated “Flight of the Bumblebee.” I started laughing, which drew the tour leader, who howled with laughter, and then the rest of the group gathered and we laughed till we wept.
The place emptied out in less than five seconds; the men simply vanished. The cashier even put down his newspaper for a moment. But I didn’t do it to empty out the joint — I did it for the relatively innocent days of Sandwich of Love.
But don’t get me started about that.